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The BSO Hits a Rich Vein in The Gold Rush

April 20, 2011

I’ve seen Charlie Chaplin’s 1924 silent film The Gold Rush more than a dozen times, and I never get tired of it, for it is one of the half-dozen greatest motion pictures ever made. And yet, except for the first time I saw it in a college classroom, it never affected me as deeply as it did Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. That’s because the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played along with the movie, using Chaplin’s own 1942 score.

There’s a scene in the film where Chaplin’s character, the Lone Prospector, has made a New Year’s Eve date with his beloved Georgia. He has lavishly decorated his Yukon cabin with garlands and presents, but when his date doesn’t show up, his head slumps on the table in despair as the candles burn down to nubs. For Georgia, wearing a slinky sequin dress, has already forgotten the date and is spending the evening in the Monte Carlo Dance Hall with the handsome cad, Jack Cameron.

She fires off pistols at midnight and then joins the rest of the revelers in “Auld Lang Syne.” This is a silent film, however, so we don’t actually hear the miners and dance-hall girls singing. What we hear is the BSO playing the old Scottish air with sumptuous strings and horns. The sound is so robust that within it we hear not only the obvious pledge of camaraderie, but also the undercurrent of regret over missed opportunities. And it’s that undercurrent, made thrilling by the deep-throated cellos, that connects Georgia and the Lone Prospector at that moment in a way no recorded soundtrack ever could.

As the lights went down before the concert began, the nearly square screen hanging above the percussion section seemed too small and the light from the musicians’ stands and the green exit lights in the balcony seemed distracting. But as soon as the black screen opened its round iris on a long line of single-file miners marching through Chilkoot Pass and the orchestra swelled with heroic music, all reservations evaporated. When a fierce blizzard traps the Lone Prospector, Big Jim McKay, and Black Larsen in a rickety mountainside cabin, the musicians provided Chaplin’s version of Beethovian storm music: swirling gusts of woodwinds and blinding snows of violins.

One could see Marin Alsop, the conductor, glancing up at the screen to make sure the music was synchronized with the action, and she kept the BSO right on track. There were some sound effects—woodblocks when the Lone Prospector hiccups after drinking kerosene from a canteen, snare shots to echo gun shots. There were lively dance tunes for the dance hall scenes and for the scene where the Lone Prospector explodes with joy after Georgia accepts a date; he literally dances on the walls and destroys a pillow as the music grows delirious as well. Delirious is how I felt as well.

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